Americans will be heading to the polls this November to decide whether Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years. Amid the heated campaigns have been Trump’s voter fraud allegations and other voter suppression claims. Following these controversies, half of Americans think there will be difficulties in casting a ballot, as the country also battles the coronavirus pandemic.
But, of course, this is not the first time that voting in America is being fraught with disagreements — in fact, there have been election-related issues right from the years of the poll tax.
A poll tax is basically a fee paid for the right to vote. Right from the 1890s when it began in the U.S., it became a legal way to keep African Americans from voting, especially in southern states. Though throughout the years the poll tax in the U.S. has been linked with the suppression of votes, the idea began way back during the colonial era.
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In fact, just before the American Revolution, colonists were required to pay poll taxes. These taxes, also known as head taxes, were levied on individuals and not only for voting reasons. By the 1690s, the poll tax idea spread to many countries, including colonies in Africa and Asia, where people were required to pay taxes to raise revenue for the government.
But in the post-Civil War era, the poll tax became one of the strategies southern whites used to disenfranchise African Americans when hitherto these African Americans had voting rights and could register, vote and ran for office.
“After the 1870s, particularly in the southern states, there was an effort to restrict any kind of political power for African Americans,” according to William Pretzer, the Smithsonian museum’s senior history curator. As a matter of fact, Congress, in 1870, passed the 15th Amendment which stated that citizens (men since women only started to vote in 1920) should not be prevented from voting on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” it stated.
But this did not go down well with many Southern legislators who started to find ways of limiting the voting rights of African Americans and decreasing the influence of poor whites on southern politics while still not violating the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. By 1902, eleven states in the south, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas, had imposed a form of a poll tax on its residents.
Though the administration of the poll tax varied across states, residents basically had to pay the tax in order to be eligible to vote and those who fail to do so could not vote. In some states, residents had to make annual payments while in others, it was cumulative.
Some states added the bill to other tax bills while others required residents to make a separate payment, according to accounts. “Alabama, Texas and Virginia set theirs at $1.50 per year, or $11.27 in today’s dollars; Arkansas had the lowest tax, $1 (or $7.51 today), while Mississippi’s was highest at $2 ($15.03 today),” the Pew Research Centre wrote in 2014.
It is also documented that in some states, “a ‘grandfather clause’ excused some poor whites from payment if they had an ancestor who voted before the Civil War, but there were no exemptions for African Americans.” Whatever the approach was, the poll tax eventually made voting a costly venture mostly for Black southerners whose incomes were extremely low. Gradually, many shied away from registering to cast their vote.
In Mississippi, for instance, only about 9,000 of the 147,000 African Americans who were of voting-age were registered to vote by 1890. By the late 1930s, critics of the poll tax had turned to the courts though many did not succeed. In a 1937 U.S. Supreme Court challenge in the case Breedlove v. Suttles, the court ruled that the state of Georgia could impose a poll tax as “It was not the purpose of the Nineteenth Amendment [guaranteeing all American women the right to vote] to limit the taxing power of the State.”
States were also entitled to make their own laws, according to the court, adding “The payment of poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting is a familiar and reasonable regulation long enforced in many states and for more than a century in Georgia.” A similar case was heard in court in 1951 where the plaintiff’s case was also thrown out.
Later, with the rise of the civil rights movements, several African-American leaders began calling for poll tax reforms, and by 1964 when the 24th amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes for federal elections, only about five southern states were enacting poll taxes. Curisously, the 24th Amendment did not mark the end of poll taxes in the United States until March 24, 1966, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that poll taxes for any level of election were unconstitutional.
And today, though some states including Texas and Wisconsin have been accused of suppressing voters’ rights through voting restrictions, no state is requiring poll taxes for elections.